A Night at the Museum

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's abstract landscapes

In September 1987—frustrated by lengthy negotiations over the preservation of a 17-mile cluster of remarkably conscientious Native American rock paintings on the site of a potential housing development—a wealthy landowner started up his forklift, removed a petroglyph-marked boulder, loaded it into the back of his pickup truck and dumped it onto the Albuquerque courthouse steps—spitting in the face of 7,000 years of spiritual history.

The National Park Service has since placed the contested land under protection as part of Petroglyph National Monument, but at the time, local artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith found the act so incensing that she was moved to pull out her paintbrushes and begin work on a new canvas to add to her series of politically charged abstract landscape paintings. Christening the piece "The Court House Steps," Smith immortalized the desecration in shades of Pepto-Bismol pink.

On a recent visit to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, where an exhibit of Smith's work, Landscapes of an American Modernist, is on display, visitors—most of them women in their mid-40s, sporting central casting variations of cropped hair, maroon lipstick and leather boots—could be heard discussing the graffiti-like qualities of Smith's canvases.

The tour, led by museum curator Carolyn Kastner, seemed for many an excuse to drink free wine and socialize with the entirety of the Santa Fe press corps while commentating with a faulty expertise on abstract art, but the women do make a good point. Smith paints with such ferocity that, at first, it's difficult to get past the frenetic energy of her work—so inundated is it with impressionistic color and the Native American symbolism of her Salish Kootenai heritage.

On a single pass through the gallery, it's almost impossible to focus on anything other than quotidian detail: a tree here, a pictograph there, patterns in the rock formations.

Yet we see a distinctive difference between artistic animosity and the human desire to maintain the illusion of permanence, which is what makes the genre of abstract landscape painting, and Smith's work in particular, unique. It's an ancient conceit found everywhere from the inner sanctums of Egyptian tombs to the infamous frescoes of Font-de-Gaume—a blank slate transformed into a record of history.

Like her contemporaries, Smith began painting landscapes as an expression of an intangible connection to place, though over the course of her artistic maturation, she began layering conflict and critical interpretations of contemporary life into her scenes of the natural world.

Some viewers compare her work, wrongly perhaps, to that of O'Keeffe, best known for her attention centered on close perspective landscapes, impervious to change. But Smith's aggressive works on paper and intensely complex oil paintings like "Sunset on the Escarpment" (1987) and "Georgia on My Mind" (1987) are defined by the articulation of change—and the ability to achieve a particular outcome while simultaneously shedding convention requires a subtlety of confession and a synthesis of subject.

Smith once described her work as "layered in meanings" intended to bring the viewer in with a seductive texture, a beautiful drawing and a message. It may take a few walks through the series (and a pamphlet with liner notes) to get a sense of what exactly Smith is trying to say; yet ultimately, her ability to tell a story through bold color, absent horizon lines, and transpositions of form reads as a record of a cultural landscape—laden with spirituality, hope, fear and imagination.

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